Rewrite: Dead Wood

14 Jan

This short story first appeared in Through the Glass Darkly. It will be retold in Through the Glass Darkly II, which I hope to publish this spring. It is somewhat rewritten and edited.

Tell me what you think?

Illustrated by Ray Ferrer

Illustrated by Ray Ferrer

Dead Wood

by L. Stewart Marsden

 

Nature has a way of riddin’ itself of dead wood. You see a big limb hangin’ low off’n a oak or elm – heck – any tree, for that matter. Anyways, you see a rotted limb in summertime, no leaves, not doin nothin for the tree – you know come fall when the winds pick up – maybe earlier – that limb’ll git blowed of’n that tree and come crashin t’the ground.

There it’ll sit, gittin eat up by termites and wood beetles and all till it’s soft mush underfoot. And in a year you won’t know it was there at all. Sometimes, however, dead wood kin git blowed about and do damage – like bust a winder or rip the tin on your roof. So it’s wise to gather dead wood an’ either burn it right then and there, or pile it up for kindlin’ for the wood stove.

Dead wood, unfortunately, ain’t limited to just trees and forests. It’s a definite problem in most towns and villages. I’m talkin people. They’s at least someone everwhere you go you could call dead wood. Them folk don’t account for much. They’s mostly from somewhere else and are hard on they luck, and if’n you’ll buy ‘em a beer, they’ll spin a yarn that’ll have you tangled up in they lies.

They’s like ticks – they latch on and suck the blood till they’s plump and fat.

Mostly folk feels sorry for ‘em. Well, the womenfolk, mostly. And when they git together quiltin’ and all, they come up with the consar­nest idees to hep the dead wood in they town to gittin back on they feet agin and becomin’ a productive part of the community!

That’d be all fine and good if’n it actshully worked! But my hand on the Good Book and my other on my heart, they ain’t but maybe one in a hundred what that works on! Now you ask anyone here if’n that ain’t so.

They can’t change on account they don’t want to! They’s got life on a string! Don’t work. Don’t do nuthin but lay ‘round an roll cigarettes and spit on the ground. They’ll sleep wherever – in a loft or on a bale in the field. An they’d eat hog slop without a second thought.

Sorry excuse for human beins, that’s what they are.

Why, theys a town out west goes by the name Deadwood, an I’m gues­sin’ its plum full of ne’er-do-wells. I just can’t imagine, can you? One is bad enough, but two, or three or more? Why it would be just intolerable!

That’s why we done what we done – an’ I hafta say, it’s been like night and day here ever since! Why it was a gettin so dead wood was a pilin up here underfoot ever where. Word musta got out ‘bout our women and theys quiltin bees and what I’ll call, them “rescue missions,” cause it seemed we went a spate whenever week another bum’d drift inta town with his miserble tales.

Now, after each o these projects had done gone through the women’s “program,” which was a bath, a new change of work clothes, a pocket full of coins, upon which they – the women – got the dead wood to promise to show up to the church to scrape, or paint, or fix the roof – them projects claimed to “re-lapse!” (Most, act-shully, just left in the dead of night to go to some other town that might have a group of women similarly inclined.)

Consarnit! This kept on for the better part of a year. We menfolk watched as the dead wood came and the dead wood went. Ever week. Thas almost fifty-two pieces of dead wood!

Now, we menfolk love our womenfolk – and we long learned that you cain’t say nuthin’ to a woman to unconvince her of something she is so stubborn convinced about!

“Hit’s what the Lord commands us to do!” they’d a argue.

Well, you cain’t argue that, now, can you? We knowed we prob’ly couldn’t stop dead wood from comin to our town. And, we knowed we couldn’t make the womenfolk stop and think sense – so, the idea come up we needed to discourage dead wood from comin here in the first place. Somehow the word had to get out that our town was not a good town for dead wood to come to.

That’s when we hit on our plan. We done decided that if’n Nature itself had no problem trimmin trees of dead wood, why should we? Ain’t Nature made by God hisself? ‘Course it is! An Nature uses all kinds of ways to sift the dead wood – from lightnin’ to high winds an all – nothin’ very pleasant, I’d say.

So all the menfolk – save the Sheriff and the preacher – come to a pact on trimmin’ the dead wood in our town. We deliberated over to the saloon, an’ decided the very next time we had dead wood, what we was goin’ to do. And, that the real way to git the word out, well that would happen when we happened to have two pieces of dead wood at the same time.

We knowed that might take a bit.

So the next “project” – which was our first – was a sneakin’ out of town late at night, and we met him a mile down the road at the curve where the clearing is and trimmed him.

That kinda carried on for sev’ral weeks an all until it happened: two dead woods! Hallelujah! God had provided! An it weren’t all that long until the womenfolk had them in their project.

‘Cause they was related – they said – the two snuck out together. They had act-shully done a day or two’s work at the church, which surprised all the womenfolk, who strutted about with a “Tol’ ya so!” look and attitude. The menfolk was disappointed. After all, this was a heavenly provision – this was exactly what we needed! But, we maintained vigilance, and, sure enough, one of the two talked the other into skeddadlin’ on account his hands was gittin’ caloused!

So, on a moonlit night the two slipped out’o their nice, cozy beds, soffly opened the sash and crawled out onto the ground. They was stayin over to Earl’s house, on account Maybelle was the leader of the quiltin’ group and volunteered her house after the two pieces of dead wood actually worked. She was sartain they was redeemed!

Well, ol’ Earl could see the two eyen’ one ‘nother at supper whenever Maybelle went off on “Ain’t God good!? An’ you two’s just like that prodigal son in the Bible what left his father and went off to live in sin and sorryness and finally slep in the slop! Praise Jee-sus!”

Well, the very next day was Sunday, and Maybelle had already tol’ preacher Hyram about the salvation of the dead wood, and that he needed to give these two re-formed men the opportunity to testify before the congregation. “It’ll hep set the cement,” she declared. If truth be known, she was hopin’ they would bring up her cookin’ and hospitality and give her some of God’s glory as well.

And them two knowed they was not goin’ to go to no church. And Earl picked up on that, and was sittin’ on the porch that night, bathin’ in the moonlight when he seed them two skulkin’ down the road.

We all knowd what was goin on, and all us menfolk was hid in the shadows along they way till they passed far enough to re-lax and begin laffin’ ‘bout them bein’ redeemed. They sung out a version of “Amazin’ Grace,” but began to substitute they own words – which was a mockery of God and of us.

They had no idee some of us was comin up behind them, and some of us was awaitin’ just around the next bend in the road. And that we had our trimmin’ tools in hand.

Just around that bend was a cleared off area where the dead wood was bein’ discarded. They was somewhat of a odor, to be sure, and when the two rounded the bend, one of them sniffed.

“Gawd! What is that smell?”

Henry Dawks stepped out from behind a tree and answered, near about causin’ them two to die a heart attacks!

“Thas dead wood.”

“Oh, Mr. Dawks!” One of the men recognized him. “Thought you was a ghost!”

“Skeered me, too!” shivered the other.

Then the rest of us appeared in the glow of the moonlight, and surrounded the two. We all had a trimmin tool: axes, scythes, hoes and other implements.

“Wha – what’s goin’ on,” one sort of laughed, a whole lot worried.

Earl come up from behind, wielding a large mallet in his hands. ‘Cause Maybelle was the leader of the womenfolk, we figgered he should be the leader of the menfolk, and balance out what his wife was a-doin.

“Hit’s time to clear out the dead wood,” he answered in a deep, grim voice.

“Dead wood? Dead wood? Why Cal and me’d be moren’ glad to help out!”

“Thought you was leavin’ us.”

“Leavin’?” he laughed, nervously. “No! No, we was just enjoyin a walk in the moonlight. Stretchin’. Y’know – soakin’ up all of God’s glorious crea-shun.”

There was a few “amens” murmured.

“See, your kind has been messin’ with that crea-shun for some time, now. You come in ta town – don’t do nuthin – expect us good folk to hand you ever-thin’ on a silver plate. Take us and our womenfolk for what you can, and then high-tail it.”

“But Cal and I ain’t like that! Didn’t we work at the church?”

“You did.”

“Ain’t your wife seed we is re-formed? Ain’t we ‘spose to testify to the church tomorrow?”

“She did and you are. ‘Spose to testify, I mean. ‘Bout the re-formed part, I ain’t so sure. You and your cousin’re more’n a mile out to town. Not no short piece. An’ you were not strollin, but ya had a pretty good pace goin’. Near ‘bout a trot. An, you was sangin’ a hymn – one of God’s fav’rite songs – an’ makin’ jest of it.”

“We didn’t mean no harm!”

He had just got the word “harm” out when an axe struck him in the arm, and where it cut, the bottom part from the elbow to his hand fell to the ground.

He screamed, and his cousin near ‘bout lost his mind, fallin’ in the dirt and yellin’ and beggin’ “mercy!”

We left him go, and commenced to finishin’ trimmin’ the other. His screamin’ finally stopped when a scythe split through his neck, and his head plunked on the ground and rolled a few inches.

Some of the men picked up the dead wood parts and began to bury them in the clearing.

Cal was writhin’ on the ground, balled up like a baby, whimperin’ ‘stead of screamin’.

“Cal,” spoke Earl calmly. He repeated the name till Cal stopped and looked up at him, his large form black against the moon.

“Cal, you are our messenger. We are not going to trim you. Much. But just enough that you remember to warn all the other dead wood around not to come here. Tell them to go somewhere else.

And oh, we’re gonna let the nearby towns know about trimmin’ dead wood, too. So I ‘spect some of them won’t be the place to go, either.”

Earl nodded at Ray Jean, who lit a torch. The flame slowly burned bright on the oiled burlap wrapped around one end.

He nodded at me, and I knelt down to take Cal’s arm, while others grabbed the remaining arm and his two legs. We splayed him on his back – his arms and legs out in four directions. He was screamin’ agin’.

One of the men stuffed a piece of cloth in his mouth.

In the light of the torch the axe came down on the wrist of Cal’s writin’ hand, and someone swooped up the hand and put it into a small burlap bag, then pulled on draw strings to close it. The bag was hung up from a limb of one of the nearby trees.

Ray Jean stepped up with the torch and I forced Cal’s bleeding stump into the flame. It crackled and stunk to high heaven, producing thick, black smoke.

To say Cal was a screamin’ don’t do it justice. But everone was able to tolerate it, just the same.

“We don’t want you to bleed to death, Cal,” Earl explained.

Toby had a wooden bucket of water with him, and we plunged the charred stump into it to help ease the pain. Then someone took out a flask and poured hot whiskey down Cal’s gullet, while another pinched his jaws to force his mouth to stay open.

A waste of good rye, I thought.

We let go, and while he squirmed and wriggled in the dust, holding his handless arm with the good hand, and cried and moaned, Ray Jean doused the torch in the wooden bucket and we all turned back toward town, Cal on the ground behind, bathed in the moonlight in the clearing.

“Don’t come back, Cal,” Earl left with him – though no one thought Cal was that stupid.

What is amazin’ ‘bout all this is how well it worked! That winter, dead wood popped up on all kinds of trees in the woods about town. And in the spring, with the passing through of some whopper storms, it was trimmed, and left all over everwhere. The menfolk all got together one Saturday and collected the fallen, trimmed dead wood. We piled it in Hairston’s wagon and rolled it out to that cleared patch of land just beyond the bend in the road.

Then we stacked it and burned it. A week later we spread the ashes in the field. Three months later, starter pines began to spring up in the clearing.

Today, it’s a mixture of young pine trees and hardwood saplings beginning to take root. And the other dead wood? Nary another one o’ them has come to town since. Cal musta got the word out.

Ain’t God good?

 

Copyright © by Lawrence S. Marsden, 14 January, 2014
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